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Helem
We are not agents of the West (Ghassan Makarem replies to Joseph Massad)

in LEBANON, 09/12/2009

The real problem with Massad’s interview is the lies, fabrications, and insinuations of being agents of the West against the people in Helem. This is an opinion we have heard many times from Salafists and chauvinists. The contention that homosexuals are agents of the West, that they are “imposing Western values”, and that they belong to the upper classes was also used by Khomeini before rounding up homosexuals and executing them. It is the same justification given to call for the arrest of HIV positive persons in Egypt and elsewhere and to pass a viciously homophobic law in Uganda.

 Dear Reset Doc,

on December 1, 2009, you published an interview with Joseph Massad entitled “The West and the Orientalism of Sexuality” where he made slanderous and distorted allegations about Helem, an LGBTQ rights organization in Lebanon. In 5 sentences, Massad managed to squeeze in a number of lies and distortions that he has been spreading for the past several years. They warrant a detailed and point-by-point reply.

There is much to be said about Massad’s argument about the invention of homosexuality and its imposition by the West on the East, especially his claim that homosexuality in the West “is an identity that seeks social community and political rights, while the other [in the East] is one of many forms of sexual intimacy that seeks corporeal pleasure.” It is odd that Massad, a Palestinian in the Diaspora, refuses to recognize the agency of persons with non-conforming sexual orientations in “the East” and their “right” to seek social community and choose identities. A serious class analysis of these persons would also refute his argument as to the makeup of the activist community in the region, but then Massad’s misinformed preconceptions are perhaps as much a result of his own milieu and interests.

This does not mean that the categories implied in “LGBTQ”, for example, are not problematic for the non-western movement. This is a major point of contention and discussion. A prevalent critique of the movement in the west is a result of its shift to the right and toward institutional politics. As activists working on the ground in the Middle East, we ask the question: What if LGBTQ organizations and the movements in the West adopted views supportive of our struggle for liberation from oppression? Wouldn’t Massad be demanding that we let them teach us, as he himself insists on doing? We have the privilege of learning from the history of the movement, but we are quite capable of doing so ourselves.

Massad ignores the fact that the last couple of decades saw the rapid urbanization of the Middle East. Slums, residential fortresses, and pockets of extreme luxury amid deprivation grew exponentially across the region. Two decades ago, only 30 percent of the population lived in cities. By 2020 an estimated 70 percent of the region’s population will be urban, along with "more waged labor by women, higher wages, commodification of everyday life, assumption of some traditional family functions by the state, and the spread of modern medicine with its penchant for classification." (Peter Drucker 2008). This factor, couples with a multiplicity others, creates conditions for the emergence of new politicized identities. To reduce this complex process of subject formation to the imperial desires of the Gay International and its colonization of indigenous ways of being is reductionist and, it must be said, essentialist.

For Massad, the “true” Arab (and here Massad repeats the mistakes of his discipline by equating Arab desire and sexuality with Arab male desire and sexuality) expression of sexuality is one based on mere acts of “corporeal pleasure”, not identification with, or through these acts. Like Massad, when Ahmadinajad told the audience at Columbia University that Iran had no homosexuals, he was speaking about such identities. This denial attempts to negate the fact that their formation is also a product of the highly urbanized capitalist mode of production that Iran is chasing after, and of which Massad is also – ironically – a prototypical product (in the category of exiled intellectuals).

This can help us understand emerging identities and the nature of oppression, whether by supposedly secular states like Turkey or Egypt, religious states like Iran or Saudi Arabia, apartheid and segregated states like Israel and Lebanon, or by large political currents whether under the guise of nationalism or Islam. The few gay and lesbian organizations that emerged in the last few years in Lebanon and in the Palestinian community in Israel are aware of this also. They are, unfortunately for Massad, the product of their own conditions, and not a throwback to the imagined peasant community that people from the Arab East seem to cling to in the Diaspora.

The real problem with Massad’s interview is the lies, fabrications, and insinuations of being agents of the West against the people in Helem. This is an opinion we have heard many times from Salafists and chauvinists. It was one of the main arguments used in a campaign waged against Helem in 2005 by a member of the Municipality of Beirut supported by Dar Al Fatwa and Saudi media. While Massad tries to hide behind a mask of scholarship and self-proclaimed progressiveness, he manages to voice an opinion that reflects the most bigoted religious currents in the region. The contention that homosexuals are agents of the West, that they are “imposing Western values”, and that they belong to the upper classes was also used by Khomeini before rounding up homosexuals and executing them. It is the same justification given to call for the arrest of HIV positive persons in Egypt and elsewhere and to pass a viciously homophobic law in Uganda. If this seems an exaggeration of Massad’s opinion, then how do we explain his mocking of the victims of torture during the Queen Boat case in Egypt a few years ago, thereby tacitly extending support to one of the worst violators of human rights in the region, because the victims happened to adopt an identity that Massad does not deem “authentic”?

Massad does not provide any evidence about his statement that “non-Lebanese” actively participated in founding Helem, but I will.

Since its inception, Helem was open to all individuals who live in Lebanon. During the period of the “Cedar Revolution”, when “non-Lebanese” workers were being attacked in the streets, Helem insisted on its openness to Palestinian refugees and was attacked by some elements from the right for welcoming their membership in the organization. Helem is also an initiating and active member in campaigning for the rights of “non-Lebanese” domestic workers and for providing “non-Lebanese” Palestinian refugees with their civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights in Lebanon. In the past year, Helem has provided support for Iraqi and non-Iraqi refugees fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation. Why does this seem problematic to Massad? Or does he – for example – espouse the position of fellow chauvinists that Palestinians should be locked up in concentration camps to keep them longing for their right of return?

To refute his argument further, the founding members of the organization who presented the notification of association to the government were all Lebanese, as stipulated by the law, even though we support the right of non-nationality holders to create and work in associations.

While it is true, as with any association, that “Helem represents only its own members and can only speak for them,” it seems that Massad has a serious problem with those members; people, I might add, whom Massad has never met. Is Massad claiming that Helem was set up by foreigners (Westerners) trying to create facts on the ground for the Gay International conspiracy? The circumstances of Helem’s formation will show that the main problem with Massad’s attack is that it is based on outright ignorance of Helem’s positions and the facts on the ground.

Several elements were present during the formation of Helem. A group called Club Free, which previously focused on networking and social events initiated the idea. In the period between 2001 and 2004 (when Helem was formalized under the law of associations), several currents were influential in creating the association. In addition to Club Free, based mainly in professional circles, Helem’s formation attracted rights activists, especially those around a group called Hurriyat Khassa (Private Liberties), and included the support of groups such as Khat Moubashar (a radical leftist group that focused on engagement in the cultural sphere), and a big section of the left grouped in the No War – No Dictatorships platform against the war on Iraq, including supporters of the campaign to boycott Israeli products, which came out of the sit-in protesting the siege of Ramallah in 2002, Beirut Indymedia, and Al-Yasari magazine. Helem’s first public outing was actually during the March 15, 2003 international day of mobilization against the war on Iraq. It does not seem that Massad ever had contact with any of these groups and thus cannot begin to claim to know how Helem was formed.

During the preparations for the war on Iraq, Helem became part of the steering committee of the "No War – No Dictatorships" anti-war campaign, which sought to link opposition to the invasion with the struggle for real democracy, including full civil rights for all. Helem's involvement, along with the left, democracy activists, some NGOs, and student groups was not merely out of solidarity with Iraq, but based on a conviction that sexual liberation cannot be achieved through imperialism nor is it detached from the wider struggle for democracy.

In April 2004, Helem presented the government with the required 'notification of association' and opened a community center in Zico House, a cultural space in Beirut, providing services like many other LGBT organizations in the global south. The events following the Hariri assassination of 2005 threw the whole country into turmoil. The withdrawal of the Syrian army and the promises of democratic reforms gave the false impression to many that some freedoms can be gained. But, not unlike the other US-sponsored 'revolutions', the Cedar Revolution meant increased dependence on the capitalist system and increased police repression. From the beginning, it was clear for gay and lesbian activists that the 'pro-western' forces that had just prevailed could be worse than their predecessors. Chants against the sitting government were virulently homophobic and then, a few days into the 'revolution', gay democracy activists were kicked out of the 'freedom camp' set up by NGOs who received generous donations from the EU and the US to 'promote human rights and democracy'. The general mood of hatred propagated by pro-western media also led to an increase in gay bashing. Until today, the great majority of anti-gay rhetoric and online attacks against Helem come from sites belonging to pro-western regimes, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, using the same line of argument that Massad adopts.

In July 2006, Helem was also one of the first organizations to react to the Israeli aggression and become part of the massive grassroots solidarity movements that sprung up during the attacks. The gay and lesbian community center became part of Beirut's busiest relief headquarters during 4 weeks of bombing. Joining with allies from the anti-war movement, environmentalists, student groups, collectives, and Palestinian refugee associations, Helem became part of Samidoun, the largest independent campaign in solidarity with the resistance and working for the relief of civilian refugees and war victims. The total number of refugees reached one million; the Samidoun campaign that ended in December 2006, directly provided care for 10,000 persons and indirectly for twice that number during the war. In post-war activities, Samidoun reached 100 villages, at least. In line with this position, Helem had called for the boycott of Jerusalem World Pride earlier that summer. Does Massad seriously believe that the Gay International was behind all this?

A better analysis of Helem’s real impact during that period can be provided by Khaled Saghiyyeh, editor of the leftist Al-Akhbar newspaper in Beirut, who spoke about the reaction to Helem’s call for the support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against the Israeli state in boycotting an event organized by the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) in Tel Aviv (Helem’s call for the boycott can be found here). Concluding that “[Hezbollah], no matter how powerful it is, will not be able to continue to grow unless it takes this kind of message into account,” Saghiyyeh quoted a supporter of the Resistance who seeks “corporeal pleasure” with persons of the same sex, who spoke about his experience in Samidoun during the Israeli aggression (in an anonymous comment on the statement):

“I felt a great power in me that pushed me to volunteer to work on the ground and that gave me the will and energy to strive for victory no less than any Resistance fighter. And, for the first time, I saw the reality of these fighters without any fear and illusions. They had more goodness and humanity than I ever imagined. And when an official of Hezbollah thanked us for our humble effort, I felt happiness like never before, and I realized that the common language of the oppressed united us more than any other consideration…” (Khaled Saghiyyeh, Al-Akhbar editorial, 24 September 2009. Published in English by MRZine).

Another issue is Massad’s use of the number of signatory members of the association to claim that it represents a minority. Helem is an advocacy and social services organization. It is made up of persons who want to be openly active on specific issues and programs. It has never claimed to represent 300 million Arabs or 4 million Lebanese, or even gays and lesbians in Lebanon. Homosexuals are still considered outlaws by the Lebanese state and it is only natural that a small number of people will be able to state their sexuality in public and face negative backlash from their family or community (the great majority of cases of violence against persons with non-conforming sexuality or gender expression in Lebanon, including “honor crimes”, happens at home or through extended family structure). According to research that will be published by Helem in the second half of December 2009, Article 534 of the Penal Code (that criminalizes “intercourse contrary to nature”), is usually applied against marginalized segments of the population (the working class, the poor, migrant workers…). Another direct effect of the law is to block possibility of public debate on the issue of sexuality and to deny these marginalized segments access to basic services, such as education and health.

The Lebanese state, being fully aware of the sensitivity of the issue, used this specific weakness that Massad mocks during the Beirut Municipality affair in 2005, sending police agents to establishments frequented by gays and lesbians to ask the patrons about their relationship with Helem. Massad also seems to wish that all persons who do not conform to heterosexual norms should stay in hiding and face the oppression of the state and society quietly, so as not to interfere with authentic national identity.

The esteemed professor also neglects the fact that categorization into an identity based on sexual orientation, whether authentic or imposed, has become a tool in the hands of oppressive states. The Queen Boat case is an example. The context of the arrests for activists in Lebanon was larger than a brutal crackdown on a disco on the Nile: and the subsequent mocking of the victims of torture and belittling of their plight by both human rights activists and intellectuals. It was one of the first highly publicized systematic repressions of gender and sexual non-conformity on such a scale in the region in our generation. Values and western influence were the focus of debates on the arrests, especially after Egyptian and Arab human rights organizations refused to consider it a human rights issue and took a position not dissimilar to Massad’s. Another problem was the involvement of western human rights organizations without serious links to local activists.

These developments were echoed half a year later in Lebanon when "a widespread, baseless rumor about 'Satan worshippers' linked to homosexual practices was given credence by police raids and never-completed legal proceedings, as well as official statements. During that period, religious voices took advantage of the occasion to reiterate their traditional position against homosexuality. They urged parents to safeguard their children’s morality against 'satanic' bid'a (new practices which are contrary to religion) such as homosexuality. Moreover, the 'Committee for the Preservation of Moral Values,' representing the main recognized sects in Lebanon, used the word bid'a to demonize homosexuality and even civil marriage. This committee is currently preparing draft essays on 'moral values' and lobbying to integrate them into school curricula." (Interview with Hurriyat Khassa co-founder Nizar Saghieh in MERIP). The government tried but failed to link "Satan worshipers" with some establishments (commercial and non-commercial) frequented by sexual non-conformists.

Similar campaigns by the police began to surface in Morocco and the Gulf countries. Issues of morality became a weapon to be used by the state against society to appease a growing Islamist movement. This was aided by the reluctance of weak and donor driven local human rights organizations to tackle controversial issues, the interlinking of security agencies of the states of the Arab League, and the over-enthusiasm (sometimes outright colonialist mentality) of western identity-based gay rights organizations looking for a new "front", and funding opportunity (not dissimilar to getting funding to publish a book bashing the nascent movement for sexual liberation under the pretext of literary research).

The reluctance of people to join activist organizations openly is based on a real fear. It is a fear that Massad, like those pro-Imperialist Western organizations, will never face in New York or when he visits his fellow bourgeois professors and intellectual buddies in Lebanon. Helem’s formal membership is currently at 60, the majority in their early 20s. In the past several years, hundreds of people worked in the organization or in campaigns initiated or supported by Helem. We have a network of thousands of supporters and beneficiaries in the region, but we will never claim to represent anything other than the opinions adopted democratically by the membership.

If Helem’s work in Samidoun and its adoption of an anti-Imperialist stance since even before its formalization is not enough, a quote from Helem’s keynote address to the 2006 OutGames in Montreal (through video, due to Israeli attack) will explain our position on such matters. There is no reason for Massad to have missed this, since it is available online in print and in video, since 2006. But I will spell it out again:

“Perhaps one of the primary and most difficult of Helem’s struggles has been proving the legitimacy of its cause without falling prey to accusations of being “agents of Western imperialism”. While this proposition might sound outrageous to some, it is certainly not a baseless fear. History is filled with examples of how human rights discourses have been co-opted to serve colonialist agendas and to reinforce them with a false moral purity. Currently, as we enter the next phase of the US administration’s plan to re-draw the geo-political map of the Middle East under the guise of ‘fighting the war against terror’, the buzzwords remain the same: Democracy, reform, freedom, and human rights. How is it surprising then, that any talk of “human rights” is not regarded with suspicion? President Bush held up the mantle of women’s rights as one of the justifications for invading and occupying both Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel continuously promotes itself as a safe haven for sexual minorities, using their ‘tolerance’ as proof that they are a more ‘civilized’ people than their Arab neighbors, occupied and otherwise. Some LGBT and civil rights movements have joined forces with right-wing nationalist groups in their practice of one of the last acceptable forms of racism against Arabs and Muslims…

As Israel systematically destroys Lebanon’s infrastructure and kills its residents with US-made bombs in what is being advertised as the latest installment of the United State’s plan for the “new Middle East”, it is incumbent upon all of us to denounce these atrocities. We do not accept democracy at the barrel of a gun. We do not accept to be liberated through war, if the price of liberty is our lives, meted out in collateral terms.

The international LBGT community should not shun its brothers and sisters in Lebanon and Palestine. Especially not now, when both Lebanon and Gaza are being decimated by Israel. Helem, the first legally recognized national group that openly calls for LBGT rights in the Arab world, is calling for a boycott of this year’s world pride event, scheduled to take place in Jerusalem. We should not be calling for one particular type of freedom in a country that systematically denies all types of freedom to its neighbors. In Beirut, Helem will continue to work towards LBGT rights. We cannot, and will not do so under bombardment.” (Rasha Moumneh, Helem Keynote Video Address to the OutGames, Plenary Session: “Focus on Africa and the Arab World”, July 27, 2006.).

From his privileged position as a university professor in the United States, at an institution that is formally Zionist and is funded by multinational corporations and government projects aimed (in part) to colonize our region, Massad cannot fathom the idea that persons from non-conformist sexualities have no need for “spokespersons” like him, or people like Irshad Manji. Both are equally ignorant of the realities of the issues of sexual liberation in the region. Both agree that we do not have the right to express ourselves. For those of us actually struggling for a better life free from oppression, we see both as part of the same package.

Ghassan Makarem, founding member and current Executive Director of Helem

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